EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey — Heading into the final seven games of the regular season, things are looking up for the New York Giants.
Forget that the Giants (5-4) have to play Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on Sunday in their final game before a bye. Even though they have played the Patriots well, few expect them to win.
The exciting part for Tom Coughlin's team is it has a legitimate shot to make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. The Giants not only have a half-game lead on Philadelphia (4-4) in the NFC East, they seem to be improving.
The offense is starting to click with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr., leading the way. Two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has returned after losing a finger in a July 4 fireworks accident. Cornerback Prince Amukamara is close to returning from a pectoral injury. Tackle Will Beatty might return from his offseason pectoral injury, and there is even an outside chance receiver Victor Cruz could play for the first time in more than a year.
It's very encouraging, a lot better than the past two seasons when New York was 3-6 with seven games to go and heading nowhere.
The one negative is that the Giants lost defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins for the season to a pectoral injury in a 32-18 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday.
"It's a great thing to be in the hunt and be relevant," Coughlin said Monday. "Each week is meaningful and the players are well aware of it."
The schedule does not favor New York. The upcoming opponents have a combined 37-19 record, with New England (8-0), Carolina (8-0) and Minnesota (6-2) all leading or tied for first place in their respective divisions. Also on the schedule are the Jets (5-3), Dolphins (3-5), Redskins (3-5) and Eagles, who will visit MetLife Stadium for the regular-season finale.
Having Pierre-Paul back is going to help on defense. He could be the quick fix for a pass rush that has been missing all season. He didn't have any sacks Sunday in 46 plays, but he got pressure on Jameis Winston.
Coughlin said Pierre-Paul looked rusty, but he also was quick off the snap and played well late with the game on the line.
"He will assume whatever roles we need to design in order for us to maximize his ability," Coughlin said.
Naturally, Pierre-Paul wants to improve next week.
"It takes time you know, like I said, I'm not perfect, nobody is in this world, but I'm going to take care of that and get better," he said.
Linebacker Jonathan Casillas thought Pierre-Paul played well.
"He still has to get his feet underneath him just like anybody else would their first game back after a while," Casillas said Monday. "I'm just happy for a guy like him who suffered a very traumatic injury and to be back, to be playing, and doing the thing he loves to do."
The Giants will have to play better to beat the defending Super Bowl champions.
The offense has stepped up the past two weeks, scoring six touchdowns in the 52-49 loss to New Orleans, and then controlling the ball for 35 minutes against the Bucs.
"We all knew we were capable of being the top team in the division," receiver Rueben Randle said. "It was all about us making sure we did it on the field and not just talked about it. I don't find it a surprise to us that we're at the top. We've just got to continue to build as a team and get better each and every week to remain there."
After giving up seven touchdown passes to Drew Brees in New Orleans, the defense allowed one touchdown to the Bucs — on a run.
Casillas, who played for New England last season, called the Patriots' offense a "well-oiled machine" that exploits opponents' weaknesses.
"New England is never not going to be a difficult task, and that's a tribute to Tom Brady, Bill Belichick as the coach, and all the guys that move around in and out of the building," Casillas said. "They just do a great job and we're definitely going to have to play lights out to beat these guys."
Amukamara practice last week for the first time since being hurt on Oct. 11, and he made progress.
Coughlin refused to say Beatty would be activated from the physically unable to perform list. The team must decide this week or place him on injured reserve for the rest of the season.
Cruz, who has not practiced since a calf injury in mid-August, started running last week. If he can continue to make progress, he has a shot at playing this season.